The Connecticut National Guard hosted a virtual video conference with representatives from Uruguay, its State Partnership Program counterpart, to discuss best practices and lessons learned thus far from the COVID-19 pandemic, April 9, 2020, a first of its kind for the Southern Command area of responsibility.
According to Maj. Pedro Concolino, director of the Connecticut National Guard’s State Partnership program, Uruguay is approximately sixteen days behind Connecticut in regards to the virus progression and this virtual meeting allowed both parties to look at the problem in a new way and continue to build upon their twenty-year partnership.
“We don’t stop being partners just because we’re wrapped up in our own stuff,” said Concolino. “I think this exchange shows the extent to which both countries take it seriously. We both took time out of our schedule during a pandemic to talk to each other and share notes to try and potentially save some lives.”
This call came to fruition thanks to the hard work of U.S. Army Capt. Rebecca Rojas, the bilateral affairs officer stationed at the U.S. embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay. Rojas is a Connecticut National Guard Soldier who, on top of working as a liaison between Connecticut and Uruguay, also serves as the liaison for the U.S. Southern Command Traditional Commander Activities Program and U.S. Army South.
Also in attendance was Karina Rando, the head of the COVID-19 task force for the Uruguayan Ministry of Public Health, Uruguayan Colonel Antonio Nunes, the military liaison to SINAE – the Uruguayan equivalent to FEMA – as well as Connecticut National Guard Brig. Gen. Ralph Hedenberg, dual status commander for Connecticut’s COVID-19 response.
Many of the strategies Uruguay has adopted to prevent the spread of this deadly virus have mimicked much of what the U.S. and other countries around the world have done: from closing schools and non-essential businesses to suggesting the use of masks when social distancing cannot be implemented and canceling public social activities, according to Rando, who is both a captain in the Uruguayan army and a medical doctor.
Because COVID-19 cases began to appear in Uruguay later than much of the world, their task force for combatting the virus has had the benefit of monitoring what other countries have been doing and using that data to form their own response before the viral infection became widespread. But, as a small country with limited exposure to the virus, they’ve been limited in their data gathering and acquisition of essential supplies such as ventilators and test kits.
Because of this shortage, the Uruguayans have adapted their procedures to make do with what they have until more supplies become available. Through this call, and the mutual willingness to share data and informational resources, both parties were able to reflect on their own best practices. One important topic was the management of testing kits.
“We both have very restrictive access to COVID-19 test kits,” said Concolino. “Something I thought was very interesting that the Uruguayans were doing is: they’re isolating presumed positives before they test them.”
Concolino went on to explain that rather than having someone who has shown symptoms of COVID-19 go to the hospital or a drive-thru testing site immediately, the government will have them shelter in place for seven days before administering the test. What this has done is nearly eliminated the possibility of false-negative tests and the need to retest someone.
Likewise, the representatives from the Connecticut National Guard had much to offer in the way of best practices, particularly with logistics and deployment of ventilators.
In the U.S., the state of Connecticut has been able to acquire ventilators from a number of locally-sourced vendors, including the strategic national stockpile and manufacturers. As a smaller country, Uruguay has been more restricted in the options for procuring this equipment. In addition, they don’t have the manufacturing capabilities to build new ones or the necessary replacement parts for the equipment they already have.
Despite the more abundant sources of medical equipment, the U.S. has still faced a shortage of ventilators around the country and medical facilities have had to develop alternative methods for providing this potentially life-saving equipment to those in need. In contrast, Uruguay has yet to become overwhelmed with the virus, but they’re struggling to acquire the equipment to meet their projected need.
“We’re waiting for the crisis,” said Rando, who elaborated by saying thirty-percent of their intensive care unit beds are empty and they’ve already increased their bed space by another thirty-percent, but the most difficult thing they face remains the inability to get replacement parts to fix their current stockpile of ventilators.
“This call provided an opportunity for Uruguay to discuss their problems and for us to provide a few solutions the U.S. has been using to overcome those same problems,” said Concolino.
Another area of discussion was modeling the spread of the virus.
“The Uruguayans put together their own model for the spread of COVID-19,” said Concolino. “But after some discussion, we offered to input their data into a model put out by Cornell University.”
With this data, the Uruguayan government will have a better idea of how the virus spreads and which areas of their country will be more affected.
This teleconference provided both the U.S. and Uruguay the option to share data and ideas among partners and to help spur innovation to stem the spread of a pandemic.
Above all else, what this teleconference call has shown is that it will take a global effort to effectively combat the COVID-19 pandemic; when data and ideas are shared, regardless of how many cases a country is housing, new innovations and policies can arise to help prevent the continued spread of this deadly virus.
The Connecticut National Guard intends to maintain close contact with Uruguay throughout this response to continue to build upon their strategic relationship through, and well beyond, the end of the pandemic.